Wednesday, November 4, 2015

More Selective

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
November 4, 2015

In the 1984 comedy film This Is Spinal Tap, a mock documentary that follows the fading fortunes of an aging heavy metal band, Rob Reiner is interviewing the band’s manager. Observing the fact that the band’s audience has shrunk at every stop on the current tour, Reiner asks, “Has Spinal Tap gotten less popular?”

Spinal Tap's manager speaks softly and carries a cricket bat.
“Oh, no,” says the manager, “No, no, no, no, no … Spinal Tap is not less popular. Their audience has just gotten more selective.”

We laugh, because obviously, fewer numbers of fans in the stands means that the band is less popular. But then, it’s all too easy to take this question and apply it to the church. Is Christianity becoming less popular in the Western world? No, no, no, no, no … Christianity is not less popular. Our following has just gotten more selective.

And you know what? I think this is absolutely right.

For 1700 years, it was safe to assume that the majority of people living in the Western world were Christians. That is no longer the case. We are in the process of successfully decoupling faith and culture from each other. Partly, this is possible because of our commitment to radical individualism, about which I’m aware I’ve probably preached too much lately. But overall, I think it’s a good thing. Christianity is meant to be a countercultural force, not an assumed norm. When it becomes an assumed norm—as it did for 1700 years—it loses a lot of its vitality. We are now living in a time when Christianity can reclaim its main goal again: to spread the Good News of God’s salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.

Our goal is not to save people, or to make people behave in a certain way, or to make bad people into good people, or to raise lots of money, or to build grand cathedrals. These things might happen along the way, but where they don’t happen, that doesn’t mean the mission is failing.

The means to our goal might include weekly worship, feeding the hungry, teaching and learning about the Bible, and baptizing lots and lots of people into the church. These things are vital practices that aid our goal, but where they don’t happen, that doesn’t mean that God has abandoned our joint project.

It is such a big temptation for churches to count numbers. Whether you come from a tradition that counts “bums in the pews,” or a tradition that counts “souls saved,” we are comforted by the presence of more and more people among us. That has certainly been the case at St. Paul’s lately—we had 298 people at the 10:30 service this past Sunday, and that feels great! But in most places in the Episcopal Church, and in Christianity throughout the West, this just isn’t happening.

Christianity is getting more selective. And our gospel lesson today tells us that Jesus was selective, too, about who could be his followers.

Large crowds were following him around, we hear. The Jesus Movement was very popular, because healing and wholeness were flowing from this man’s very touch, and an abundance of food simply from his blessing. It seems that Jesus saw the need to make sure people knew what they were signing up for. It’s like when I talk to parents and potential godparents of infants and children, and I might ask blatantly, “Why on earth would you want to have your child baptized? Do you know what you’re getting your child into?”

Jesus tells us what the Jesus Movement must mean for us. It means putting God ahead of our families, such that our love for them looks like hate by comparison. It means carrying a cross—being willing to shoulder the burden of shameful execution as convicted criminals. After 1700 years of Constantinian Christianity in the Western world, we have a hard time imagining this cost.

The Rev. Canon Andrew White,
"Vicar of Baghdad"
Yet today in Iraq, Christians and other religious minorities are having to make exactly this decision: Cave under pressure, die, or become refugees. The Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, Andrew White, has a $157 million price on his head.  ISIS has killed over 1,200 of his parishioners. That’s the cost of being a Christian in the post-Saddam Hussein world, in a place where a twisted, evil version of an otherwise great religion is swiftly taking over.

Meanwhile in the United States, pampered Christians who have never learned what persecution is cry “persecution!” when someone wishes them “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas,” or when someone tells them that public prayer in public schools might not be appropriate, or when someone asks them to bake a wedding cake, or when a Muslim family moves into the neighborhood.

Perspective is a very helpful thing. In the United States, we’d have to stick our necks out pretty far to be persecuted for being Christians. A Christian identity is still the assumed norm, even if few people are choosing it. But this identity, being assumed, does not bring with it the cost that Jesus demanded of his first followers, or even of the first three centuries of his followers.

It might seem silly to ask this of you, a tiny group of dedicated Christians. But I’ll ask it anyway: “Are you sure you really want to sign up for this?” It’s good to keep asking ourselves this every day. Once we are baptized, we can’t be un-baptized. But we always get to decide what to do with our baptism.

In our privileged context, what do we do about the high cost of discipleship that Jesus spoke of? Chances are we won’t ever be put to the test to this extreme. But we will be put to the test in lesser ways.

Will we respect the dignity of every human being, even when it’s difficult or darn nigh impossible?

Will we pursue relationship with those who are very different from us? Will we swallow our pride and say, “I acknowledge that I can never fully understand your experience”?

Will we give more in time, talent, and treasure than our fellow human beings expect of us, simply for the joy of giving?

Will we dedicate ourselves to continual spiritual growth, even in old age?

Will we be prepared, on the day we meet face to face with the one who made us, to say, “I’m sorry—I was wrong—please forgive me”? Will we be able to accept the joy of salvation even if that also means salvation for certain of our enemies? Will we be able to forgive them?

Sometimes, relative to our own context, these are revolutionary steps for people like you and me to take. These steps don’t happen all at once, but they will be asked of us.

In many places in the world, Christianity is becoming more selective. Iraq now contains only one sixth of its Christian population from ten years ago. Martyrdom is widespread in Iraq; in the United States, it is barely even a possibility. But Christianity is becoming more selective here, too. And less popular. And maybe on this side of the ocean, at least, it’s a good thing. Those who are in church really want to be here, to learn, to grow, to love, to carry our crosses, and to change the world.

I’m glad all of you are here with me today, and that Jesus is with all of us in the breaking of the bread. Now let us pray for the needs of the world, and let us pray for the strength and the grace to carry our crosses for the sake of others. Amen.